It's No Pear-adise

If there's anything on which California farmers can agree, it's that 1998 has been one ugly year. That's particularly true for pear growers.

Look for a lot of russeting--that rough, sandy texture that most associate with the Bosc variety--on the skins of many types of pears this fall due to all the rain this spring.

The problem is that most Californians grow Bartletts, which are supposed to be smooth and shiny. The good news is that russeting is only skin deep.

It's a cosmetic flaw and has no effect on the flavor. On the other hand, cosmetics play a big part in grocery purchasing decisions. Because of that, more growers may be sending their pears to processing, where looks don't matter.

"As far as eating quality is concerned, the Bartletts didn't suffer any ill effects from the weather," says Chris Zanobini, executive director of the California Pear Advisory Board. "But the cosmetic appearance is going to be a big challenge."

Terry Barton, president of the California Pear Growers' Assn., echoes that. "Our main challenge is finding product that doesn't have russet on it," he says. "But then again, most everything in California is challenged a little bit this year, one way or another."

This year's harvest is going to be smaller than last year's, both in terms of quantity and size of the fruit.

Projections are for a total haul of about 265,000 tons--58,300 of which will go to the fresh market. That compares to last year's total harvest of 280,000 tons and fresh-market share of 66,200 tons.

Because of the rough weather--cool and rainy in the spring, blistering hot at harvest--the fruit probably won't grow to the same size it does in normal years, either.

Along with the smaller harvest come higher prices. The wholesale price of Bartlett pears is running almost double what it was last year, when a big pear crop collided with huge harvests of almost every other fruit. More to the point, prices are running about 5% ahead of the average for the last couple of years.

Prices for pears from the mountain district of Lake and Mendocino counties are even higher. Harvest there is about halfway done. Picking in the low-lying areas of the Sacramento Delta are already wrapped up.

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